Part-time Legislature group misses initial deadline

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A group attempting to make the Michigan Legislature a part-time body is missing an initial 180-day window to gather 315,654 valid signatures but will continue collecting in hopes of still making the November ballot.

Chairman Tom McMillin said Wednesday the Clean Michigan committee has “almost 300,000 petition signatures” and is gaining “more every day.” Organizer Norm Kammeraad told The Detroit News the group is attempting to build at least a 50,000 “cushion” against any signatures that could be tossed out as invalid.

“We’re going to take the full effort another month into February to try to pack in as much as possible,” Kammeraad said last week, urging supporters to send in petitions the group mailed out in a December push.

Missing the initial window, which organizers say will officially close in late January, means the group will have to toss out some signatures it began collecting in July. But the amount it will lose is “minimal to hardly any within that first month,” Kammeraad said.

“We still project to gain more every day than we'll lose,” McMillin added. “We're going to see how things go over the next week or two.”

It will be the second batch of signatures the committee lost since Lt. Gov. Brian Calley announced the petition drive in late May. The group scrapped initial signatures in early July to revise its petition language, a move designed to protect against potential legal challenges that may still loom.

Calley handed the Clean Michigan committee over to McMillin and other organizers on Nov. 10 as he prepared to launch his campaign for governor, which the Portland Republican made official on Nov. 28.

Michigan law allows petitioners to submit signatures collected with a 180-day window, meaning the group can continue collecting through a hard deadline for proposed constitutional amendments of July 9.

“But signatures older than 180 days from the date when they’re turned in are invalid,” said Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams.

Clean Michigan sent its current petition language to the Bureau of Elections on July 3, 2017, but did not seek optional advance approval of the form. In a July 24 email to supporters — sent 185 days ago Wednesday — organizers said they had volunteers collecting new signatures across the state.

The proposed amendment to the Michigan Constitution would roughly halve legislator pay and end what is now a 12-month session by April 15 of each year, a change organizers argue would force legislators to spend more time living under the laws that they pass.

The Clean Michigan committee had raised more than $887,000 for the petition drive through Oct. 20, according to a disclosure report filed with the state. Most of that money has been fronted by the Fund for Michigan Jobs, a nonprofit with ties to Calley that does not disclose donors but has contributed $666,000.

The effort is facing opposition from unlikely but powerful allies from business and labor, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Education Association. Chamber CEO Rich Studley and MEA President Paula Herbart met to discuss the petition in December, and both have urged their members not to sign in.

The chamber is conservative, but not anti-government, Studley said, calling the part-time Legislature initiative a “reckless and dangerous” proposal to “burn down the legislative branch of the state government, which is the people’s branch” and is usually most responsive to citizens.

If Clean Michigan does turn in signatures, and the state Board of Canvassers determines there are enough valid signatures for it to go before voters in November, Studley predicted multiple legal challenges that could still keep the proposal off the ballot.

“There are several options that we’re researching carefully,” he said. “This is a badly flawed proposal that was poorly drafted. It drastically alters the state constitution and fundamentally changes the nature of the relationship between the executive and judicial branches of government.”

Republican state Sen. Patrick Colbeck of Canton Township, who is also running for governor and competing with Calley for the GOP nomination, is aiding the effort. His campaign helped circulate part-time Legislature petitions while collecting separate signatures for Colbeck to make the ballot, which he submitted last week.

After seven years in the state Legislature, the staunch conservative said he thinks too much time is spent in Lansing passing bills to benefit special interests rather than constituents, which he thinks could change under a part-time Legislature.

“The reason why the part-time Legislature initiative is so popular is because our elected officials haven’t been paying attention to citizens,” Colbeck said. “There’s a reason why ‘drain the swamp’ gained traction in the last election. It’s not just D.C. It’s here in Lansing as well.”

While the proposal would reduce authority of the state Legislature, Colbeck in September introduced a joint resolution he said could “rein in” the sitting governor and help retain a healthy balance of power. It would, among other things, allow legislators to suspend or disapprove a rule adopted by the executive branch.

Calley stepped down from the group to run for governor, but he penned a Nov. 27 letter asking residents who were mailed the petition to “sign it big and bold and with pride the way John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence.”

Attorney General Bill Schuette, the early favorite for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, has said he supports the concept of a part-time legislature but has not endorsed the petition drive.

“It looks like (Colbeck) and Calley are kind of teaming up a little bit to try to get this thing over the final hump,” Kammeraad said.